Streetwear entrepreneur James Whitner opens Pittsburgh Art Gallery
Sneakers and streetwear fashion entrepreneur James Whitner sees the opening of 38a, his new art gallery in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, as a way to create change and build relationships within the community “in a city where [change] does not arrive very quickly.
Whitner, 42, known for dropping flashy sneaker collaborations with companies such as
and Adidas, grew up in the Whitaker Projects in the West Mifflin area, southeast of Pittsburgh. He lived in an apartment at address 38a.
Reconnecting to his roots is standard practice for the entrepreneur, who named his retail conglomerate, which now has 17 organized stores, the Whitaker Group (TWG). Its stores exist outside of New York and Los Angeles, in regional cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, Atlanta, Baltimore and Detroit.
This practice extends to his shoe scraps, like the Free Lunch Dunk, a Nike collaboration Whitner launched in September that was inspired by the free lunch program he relied on as a child. The shoes will be in “strawberry” and “chocolate” colors, placed in shoe boxes that look like cartons of milk.
“I just had the unique position of growing up like millions of black Americans,” Whitner says. The story represented by Free Lunch Dunk is “our story, not my story”.
38a is on the third floor of a building in East Liberty that already houses Social Status, the Whitner streetwear and sneaker store for 18-24 year olds. The building is also now home to beSocial, one of the community spaces TWG is establishing in connection with its status stores that offer free study areas and computers, educational programs, mentoring and resources. extracurricular.
“We want to create a safe space for young adults to come in, be curious and learn,” says Whitner.
BeSocial Centers – and other social service efforts attached to its A Ma Maniere, APB and Prosper brands – were born out of a realization triggered by TWG retail planner Kevin Chao that Whitner needed a way to engage with the community after the business. had grown up and no longer stood behind the cash register, able to easily joke with those who walked through the door.
The black community often doesn’t trust “because we get fucked a lot,” Whitner says. But “when you have a black face serving black clients, that natural relationship develops. If you respect the community as a black person, the trust that begins to develop becomes greater than the transaction you make. “
BeSocial and other efforts, such as Hand Wash Cold, which encourages A Ma Maniere’s more high-end consumers, are also in tune with Whitner’s philosophy that “we shouldn’t take money out of money. communities without giving anything ”.
The format of each of Whitner’s beSocial locations is determined by the needs of the community, which he and his team determine by contacting local organizations with similar missions. “We go out and see everyone who wants to do this job and invite them to do the job with us,” Whitner says. “Then we create programming to fill the rest of the void. ”
The most popular programming offered through beSocial is Whitner’s bi-weekly free-to-play game, where he shares personal stories of his “42 years of experience,” which involved growing up in poverty, being incarcerated at a young age and being incarcerated at a young age. do all of this to develop a successful business. He often teams up with professionals from other industries, too, to lead discussions about business and entrepreneurship with young people.
Events have been virtual lately due to the pandemic, but there are plans to host in-person events again that can be broadcast to other locations.
Besides East Liberty, Whitner has also just opened a beSocial location in the Whitaker Projects apartments in West Mifflin, where he grew up.
The return to Pittsburgh to launch the beSocial sites and the gallery was “both surreal and painful,” Whitner said.
“It’s surreal because I have the opportunity to do some of these things and come home and build something meaningful,” he says. “But it’s painful because you realize things haven’t gotten better. I have evolved and changed in 20 years, not much at home has.
His hope is that 38a can be a way to create greater and more lasting change for the city and its people, potentially by working with local institutions, such as the Carnegie Museum of Art.
One of the gallery’s goals is to support emerging artists from Pittsburgh and the surrounding area, such as self-taught artist Dominick McDuffie, whose photography exhibit was featured at the opening of the inaugural exhibition of the gallery Friday. McDuffie’s work focuses on “authentic documentation of black spaces, as well as the people in and around them,” according to TWG.
And another, perhaps bigger, goal Whitner has for the space is for it to serve as a link between the global artist community and the city of Pittsburgh, “to bring a global perspective to a city that is often closed and that has archaic thinking around a bunch of things. Because in his opinion, fostering change in the city is essential for the Pittsburgh neighborhoods in which he grew up in order to avoid stagnating for another 20 years.
Whitner also hopes that through art, Pittsburgh can begin to tear down the walls that separate its different communities. Art “forces people from different walks of life to interact and communicate and realize that we are more alike than different,” he says.